Thursday, November 15, 2012

Empowering Afghan Women

Whispering wind skims sides of sand dunes. A young girl, maybe eight years old, is heaving yellow plastic canisters toward a clay hut. In an Afghan village, where the gray beards make all decisions, fetching water is a girl’s duty. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, but one woman – MIT Professor Fotini Christia – keeps coming back. She has interviewed war lords, studied alliances of Taliban fighters, and now she is surveying villagers to evaluate the impact of the National Solidarity Program.  

The NSP is the largest development program in Afghanistan’s history and is unusually popular. Though it is funded by the World Bank and foreign governments like any other development scheme, the Afghans own the process. Afghan government administers the NSP to 29,000 villages through a system of elected local community development councils (CDCs), which decide on infrastructure projects for their community. These councils are not the usual circles of bearded men. For a village to receive aid, half of the CDC members must be women and at least one project must be targeted to women’s needs.

What is the impact of this program on women in this male-dominated society? That is one of the parameters Professor Christia is evaluating in a randomized field experiment. Because the program could not be delivered to all villages at once, she was able to select 250 villages for the treatment group and 250 similar villages for the control group. Her team of dedicated enumerators trekked to these remote villages to survey and interview residents in 2007, before projects commenced, then in 2009, and finally in 2011 when the projects were completed. The final evaluation results are not yet available, but Professor Christia shared some preliminary findings.

The most hopeful results were in relation to attitudes toward women’s civic participation, socialization and economic activity. Namely, in villages that received the NSP both men and women were more likely to say that women should have input on electing the village head and that there is at least one woman in the community who is well respected by both men and women. These villagers were also less likely to say that women should not have any decision-making roles. Moreover, women in the treatment villages were more likely to have become engaged in an income-generating activity, and to have developed support networks with each other. On the family attitude front, however, no statistically significant differences were observed with regard to women owning assets or being consulted about family spending decisions.

Changing entrenched gender roles is difficult enough at Harvard and MIT, not to mention a conservative village in the heart of a country ravaged by civil war.With that in mind, Professor Christia makes a compelling case that the NSP and the ongoing participation of women in local decisions is critical to moving Afghanistan forward. For instance, in selecting infrastructure projects for their communities, women were more likely than men to invest in wells and schools. Perhaps with a shorter distance to haul water, their daughters will be more likely to go to school.

Anya Malkov is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School, a WAPPP Cultural Bridge Fellow, and an alumna of From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.

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